Are we getting played? Workers and small business owners are not enemies

Reflections on the Lift Up Oakland campaign for a fair wage (and its alternative)

It was hard not to be fired up at the rally last Tuesday for a $12.25 minimum wage in the city of Oakland. Courageous workers stood at the podium and shared their struggles to care for a family on a minimum wage, council members stood in solidarity with an effort to make sure that every worker in Oakland had the right to sick leave (for their health and the health of customers), and faith leaders reminded the crowd that God stands with the people fighting for justice for all. It was pretty clear we were on the side of God.

It felt even clearer that we were on the side of right when Councilmember Reid told us that he was going to let the business owners speak first at the Community and Economic Development Committee meeting because they had to get back to the businesses they run. There were boos and jeers from the crowd, some of whom were minimum wage workers who had to go without essential pay in order to attend the meeting. It really got the “hey! who’s for the little guy around here?” juices flowing.

 

But the people who got up to speak weren’t the enemy. A couple of them were kinda jerks, but that’s because they feel like their backs are against the wall. The people who got up to speak were people who own my favorite restaurants in Oakland. They got up to speak about how much they love Oakland and how much they want to stay there and that they can’t afford to stay if they have to absorb such a steep increase in pay effective January 1, 2015. (California’s minimum wage just went up to $9/hour on July 1 and Oakland does not have its own minimum wage, unlike San Francisco at $10,74. Additionally, a lot of wait staff at restaurants go on an inconsistent and unstable lower-wage-plus-tips system.) The restaurant owners are impacted by crime and vandalism and high rents just like the rest of us. They obviously want to make a profit, but they are in the community and for the community.

 

So what we had going on in council chambers was “The Poor Benighted Small Business Owners” versus “The Struggling Low Wage Workers.” It was an epic battle.

 

Except I think we’re all getting played.

And I think we’re getting played against each other.

 

I think most small business owners are trying to do right by their employees and also make a living in a really tough industry. And I think who makes their jobs harder are not the workers asking for a fair wage, although that’s what they’re clearly being told. (A UC Berkeley study found that costs to businesses would run about 2.5%, or 25 cents extra for a $10 meal.) Their jobs are made harder by major corporations with huge earnings and major lobbying power who pay LESS per hour than the small businesses do, hurting small businesses who can’t compete with companies that keep prices low on the backs of the workers. Ronald McDonald and the Waltons and chain restaurants and stores are who really benefit from a lower minimum wage (because of scale), and they do it at the expense of both workers and small business owners who have much tighter margins.

 

There are a lot of reasons I support a $12.25 wage in Oakland—more money into the Oakland economy when low-wage workers have some disposable income, a reduction in crime when the most financially desperate people in our community actually have a shot at earning enough money to live on, the idea that Oakland can model for the rest of the country what it looks like to honor the work of the people, and most of all basic human dignity for the hard-working low-wage workers I have come to know and respect throughout this campaign (and the fast food workers’ campaign and the OUR Walmart Campaign). It’s worth noting that 96 percent of minimum wage workers in Oakland are adults, and nearly half are married. About one-third have children.

 

And there are a whole bunch of reasons I’m confident that the Lift Up Oakland campaign for a $12.25 wage is better for the city than the Chamber of Commerce-backed alternative, not least of which is that the research supporting the alternative is based on very shady math, a lack of transparent methodology, and a lot of sheer speculation. (The Lift Up Oakland campaign’s economic analysis came from the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, which obviously tends towards support of workers but which uses exceptionally rigorous and transparent methodology in its research.) I also think there’s something shady about a shiny new proposal wrapped up in “let’s give the voters a choice” when the chamber didn’t want to have any discussion at all about a fair wage on its merits when they thought we couldn’t get the 33,000 signatures necessary to get a fair wage proposal on the ballot.

 

But on Tuesday at the City Council’s Community and Economic Development committee hearing, I realized there was another reason I support this campaign: I’m tired of big business pretending it’s advocating for small business and pitting people who know each other and need each other against each other.

When I spoke to the CED Committee on Tuesday, I told them I know they care as much about the low-wage workers in their districts as I do. I told them I am as deeply loyal to Oakland grown businesses as they are.

I reminded them of Jesus’ advice that we must be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.

The gentle as doves part is obviously making sure that our city’s lowest-paid workers aren’t destitute.

The wise as serpents part, though, was making sure we weren’t getting played by pitting Oakland worker against Oakland business owner in an equation where corporations who don’t care about Oakland at all are the only ones who win.

 

Divide and conquer usually works. I hope our city’s elected officials end up being both gentler and wiser than that tired old game, for the sake of the people in their district and for the sake of the thriving of this city.

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